Alcohol Use and Athletes - Practical Guidelines

article by sports dietitian Clare Wood

For fitness lovers at all levels, from weekend warriors and occasional gym-goers to elite committed athletes, alcohol may play a part in your life. It is one of life's most socially influential and readily available legal drugs. And it's not all bad! Some athletes will happily give it up; others may find abstinence a little more difficult. So if you do enjoy the occasional beer at a bbq, wine out at dinner, or bubbles at a celebration, then these tips could help keep your love of sport balanced with socialising.

Moderation – there is some evidence to show health benefits of moderate consumption of alcohol. However, there is no scientific agreement (yet) on quantity guidelines for athletes, and at what point too much will have a negative impact on training adaptations. Athletes should be guided by recommendations for the general population, to reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury. Regular heavy drinking can often lead to poor food choices and less than optimal fuelling for intense training periods. This can lead to nutritional deficiencies, inadequate protein and carbohydrates, and an irregular pattern of eating meaning missing out on adequate pre-fuelling and snacking required for optimal nutrition.

Hydration – It is well known that alcohol has a diuretic effect on the body, reducing total fluid volume, which leads to dehydration. This is true for full strength alcohols, e.g. 4% beer, wine and spirits, but is not as evident for low strength beverages. Alcohol consumption also causes electrolyte imbalances, which can have effects on cramping. My tips would be...

Energy content – The kilojoule content of alcoholic beverages is broad and complex, depending on serve size, type of drink, and percentage of alcohol. But the bottom line is that one 10g standard serve of alcohol (100ml wine, 30ml spirits, and a middy or 285ml of beer) is about 300kJ or 70 calories. This can add up after a few drinks, as well as including the kilojoules of mixers, or sugar syrups and cream often used in cocktails. Unfortunately, the energy from alcohol is not in the right form to be used by the muscle for fuelling exercise; instead, it is more likely to be converted into fatty acids for storage, not helping an athlete keep lean.

having a beer at sunsetalcohol is a part of life, even for athletes

Timing – Knowing the immediate detrimental effects of alcohol consumption on reaction time, balance, fine motor skill accuracy, and vision, it makes sense to advise athletes to avoid alcohol immediately before and during exercise, as this would certainly prove to be problematic. Having a hangover can also lead to an increased risk of injury. Timing of intake will depend on the frequency of training during the week, and safety and recovery will depend on the volume consumed.

Recovery and Injury – Post-exercise is the safest time to 'have a few drinks', ensuring that you have followed all the proper nutritional recovery guidelines. If you have sustained an injury during an event or bout of exercise, the damage needs to be repaired in the subsequent days, without the added complexity of alcohol in the bloodstream affecting vasodilation and inflammation. Depending on how bad the injury is will determine how long you should abstain. Also, if the injury is more severe and you are not able to train for an extended period of time, you may be tempted to drink more during this phase, however, not only will you be delaying the repair process you are also taking in lots of unwanted calories.

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